That's the question James Dobbins asks in his intriguing article in Foreign Affairs (full article here at RCP). Dobbins served in both the Clinton and Bush II administrations, and takes a dim view of finger pointing, including at the military brass and the press.
Given the lack of receptivity to alternative views at the top, how much blame should be shouldered by people lower down who knew better and failed to speak up or who spoke up but failed to resign when their objections were brushed aside? Should the generals who revolted be condemned for awaiting retirement to lodge their protests? Should the nation foster a more critical climate within its military services, one in which officers are encouraged to challenge not only illegal orders but unwise ones as well?
Probably not. The military demands a higher degree of subordination, obedience, and discipline than other professions. Furthermore, civilian control of the military is an inviolable principle, which means that civilians should bear the chief responsibility when the military is misdirected.
If it is not the military's role to challenge lawful orders, still less is it the role of the press to manufacture controversy where none exists. In a democracy, the primary responsibility for opposing or at least critically examining the case for war falls on the opposition party. If the opposition chooses to duck that responsibility, as the Democrats largely did when the issue was put to them in late 2002, it is hard to fault the press for not stepping in to fill the void.
While refraining from criticizing individuals, there are suggestions for reforming institutions.
For the past 15 years, critical functions such as overseeing military and police training, providing humanitarian and reconstruction aid, and promoting democratic development have been repeatedly transferred from the State Department to the Defense Department and back again, leaving each agency uncertain what its long-term responsibilities are and consequently disinclined to invest in improving its performance. An executive order defining such roles, as Gates has proposed, would probably not outlast the administration that issued it. The national security establishment thus needs a legislated reorganization so that it can better conduct postwar stabilization and reconstruction missions, just as the Goldwater-Nichols Act over 20 years ago reorganized the military establishment to more effectively wage war.
Recognizing terror as predominantly criminal, and preemption as having failed, Dobbins suggests
The "war on terror" should be reconceived and renamed to place greater emphasis on its police, intelligence, and diplomatic components. The U.S. Army should continue to improve its counterinsurgency skills, with a particular emphasis on training, equipping, and advising others to conduct such campaigns. The United States should avoid allowing al Qaeda and its ilk to dictate its alignment in any particular dispute, should take sides when necessary based on an objective calculation of national interests, and should directly engage U.S. troops in local civil wars only in the rarest of circumstances. "Preemption" should be retired from the lexicon of declared policy, democratization should be pursued everywhere as a long-term objective in full recognition of its short-term costs and risks, and nation building should be embarked on only where the United States and its partners are ready for a long, hard, and expensive effort.
But perhaps one of the more fascinating points made is the willingness to lay out this concept:
Above all, Americans should accept that the entire nation has, to one degree or another, failed in Iraq. Facing up to this fact and drawing the necessary lessons is the only way to ensure that it does not similarly fail again.
He's not the only analyst or pundit willing to stand up to the scare tactics of the neocons and call it as he sees it. Jim Hoagland in the WaPo wrote this:
For Americans, the most important comparison will be this one: As Vietnam did, Iraq has become a failure even on its own terms -- whatever those terms are at any given moment.
This whole idea of pushing "victory" and "success" while avoiding "defeat" and "failure" when it occurs has become a staple of WH and their allies' rhetoric. For that reason, it's always interesting to see the terms "defeat" and "failure" used by pundits, despite the intimidation tactics used by the Republicans (while they insist "defeat is not an option", as if we could blithely choose our realities, here's use of the word by Ignatius: "While the Iraq part of the story still has to play itself out, the new approach isn't premised on success there but the possibility of failure.") Of course, that's not news to the American people.
Most people in the United States believe the coalition effort will be recalled in a negative light in the future, according to a poll by Rasmussen Reports. 57 per cent of respondents think the mission in Iraq will be seen as a failure in the long run, while 29 per cent think the war will be deemed a success (related Rasmussen poll here)
It suggests that the public, usually ahead of the pundits and always ahead of the politicians, isn't alone any more. And thinking through what to do next so as not to repeat the mistakes of Iraq, as Dobbins attempts to do, is a worthy goal. However, it does require a careful look at future ventures.
Preemption, democracy promotion, and nation building have all been sullied by association with the war in Iraq. All three policies deserve reexamination, but none should be jettisoned entirely.
That's controversial enough without WH intimidation to avoid thinking through the consequences of failure.
Certainly, reevaluation of the reality of the Iraq situation is called for. Part of that reality is that only political pressure will make that happen. As Dobbins points out, it takes Democrats to make that happen. And September, after all, is only a week away.